Literature and the Encounter with God in Post-Reformation England
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Literature and the Encounter with God in Post-Reformation England

Michael Martin

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  2. English
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Literature and the Encounter with God in Post-Reformation England

Michael Martin

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Each of the figures examined in this study"John Dee, John Donne, Sir Kenelm Digby, Henry and Thomas Vaughan, and Jane Lead"is concerned with the ways in which God can be approached or experienced. Michael Martin analyzes the ways in which the encounter with God is figured among these early modern writers who inhabit the shared cultural space of poets and preachers, mystics and scientists. The three main themes that inform this study are Cura animarum, the care of souls, and the diminished role of spiritual direction in post-Reformation religious life; the rise of scientific rationality; and the struggle against the disappearance of the Holy. Arising from the methods and commitments of phenomenology, the primary mode of inquiry of this study resides in contemplation, not in a religious sense, but in the realm of perception, attendance, and acceptance. Martin portrays figures such as Dee, Digby, and Thomas Vaughan not as the eccentrics they are often depicted to have been, but rather as participating in a religious mainstream that had been radically altered by the disappearance of any kind of mandatory or regular spiritual direction, a problem which was further complicated and exacerbated by the rise of science. Thus this study contributes to a reconfiguration of our notion of what 'religious orthodoxy' really meant during the period, and calls into question our own assumptions about what is (or was) 'orthodox' and 'heterodox.'

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Chapter 1
John Dee: Religious Experience and the Technology of Idolatry

Paradox, scandal, and aporia are themselves nothing but sacrifice, the exposure of conceptual thinking to its limit, to its death and finitude.
—Jacques Derrida1
In his study of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century mysticism, The Mystic Fable, Michel de Certeau considers what he calls “la mystique,” or, as it is usually translated into English, “mystics.”2 Certeau defines mystics as “a theory and a pragmatics of communication,” simultaneously a religious experience and a science of language.3Mystics,” he writes, “is the anti-Babel, the quest for a common speech after its breakdown, the invention of a language ‘of God’ or ‘of the angels’ that would compensate for the dispersal of human languages.”4 Mystics, then, arises in the tension between religious experience and the attempt to render the revelation or insight garnered through religious experience into the common coinage of words without trivializing or cheapening the mysterion by means of the translation. Translation of any kind is surely a phenomenon characterized by strangeness, alternatively signifying the movement of meaning from one language to another, the transfer of a saint’s remains from place to place, or the manner in which the righteous are conveyed to heaven without dying.
Taking Certeau’s theory of a pragmatics of communication into consideration then, the “conversations with angels” undertaken by the Elizabethan scientist and philosopher John Dee (1527–1609) can be interpreted as a variety of mystics par excellence. Indeed, a large part of Dee’s exchanges (what he called “Actions”) with spirits involved recording a unique, allegedly angelic language which the spirits dictated to him and resulted in a staggering amount of information filling several substantial volumes in manuscript.5 This was an important realm of inquiry for Dee and throughout all of his work (and not only in the Actions) he s concerns himself with problems of language and how human beings might communicate with God in order to “read the writing of God upon the world, conditioned by His writing within the world of Scripture.”6 Dee’s Actions, focused as they are on divine discourse and “the need for a unitary language”7 clearly inhabit a space characterized by mystics.
Scholars very often categorize Dee as a magus, pointing to either medieval or Renaissance traditions of magic, or to a combination of them, as the source of his spiritual methodology. Indeed, Peter French’s influential biography, John Dee: The World of an Elizabethan Magus (1973), and Benjamin Woolley’s more recent popular treatment, The Queen’s Conjurer (2001), unapologetically advertise their subject along these lines. Though this label may be convenient for scholars and booksellers, it proves ultimately unsatisfactory for describing Dee and the experiences he had with what he thought to be God’s messengers. It is clear from the writing that he has left us that Dee was “a devout Christian man”8 and believed himself to be sincere in his religion and full of piety. Indeed, the seventeenth-century scholar and divine Meric Casaubon (1599–1671), despite his unmistakable horror at the Actions, describes Dee in admiring terms as “so good, so innocent, yea, so pious a man, and so sincere a Christian.”9 Simply dismissing Dee as a magus deprives us of a clearer understanding of both the man and his work.
Despite Dee’s interest in communication with God, Dee scholarship, though it acknowledges the religious contexts of his life and work, has in the main failed to address his own work and thought in the light of religious experience. It would seem that a discourse so preoccupied with angels, apocalypse, prophecy, and the language of Adam would have drawn the attention of scholars to questions of religious experience in Dee, but this has not been the case. Though it is true that several studies have considered Dee’s Actions in the context of magic, none have examined them in the light of religious experience. Dee’s work is deeply informed by religious questions, by his investigations into natural science, and by his insatiable desire for knowledge: and these desires manifested in a singular type of religious experience.
Scholars, of course, have argued that science, magic, and religion during the period intersected in ways that make it notoriously difficult to discriminate between which phenomena belong to what category (or categories) at times. But it may be best to locate this inseparability in the relationship between religion and medicine. The work of spiritual alchemists, in general, and of Paraclesus, Robert Fludd, and Thomas Vaughan, in particular, attests to the early modern affirmation that health, though mediated through human, natural, or chemical agents, ultimately derives from God, “the lord of life and death, and over all things to them pertaining, as youth, strength, health, age, weakness, and sickness.”10 When medicine is taken out of the picture, the distance between early modern science and early modern religion expands, though it by no means disappears. Dee’s work is emblematic of the early modern period’s increasingly evident anxieties concerning the often conflicting demands of theological and scientific modes of inquiry, even though, as Allison Coudert has rightly observed, Dee’s conversations with spirits were “part of his interest in natural philosophy, not antithetical to it.”11 But the intellectual ground upon which he stood was shifting. Positioned at the avant-garde of European intellectual life, he was both a man of the medieval past and one anticipating the rational and empirical ethos that would follow Bacon and Descartes.
Because of his freedom from the tradition of spiritual direction and due to his habit of Renaissance syncretism, Dee’s forays into the realm of communication with God were characterized not only by creativity and innovation but also by possibilities of political and religious, as well as psychological and spiritual, danger.12 György Szőnyi has argued that Dee’s undertakings with the spirits were “entirely pious” and that the Doctor was attempting to achieve “union with God,”13 but it is not at all clear that this was Dee’s aim. It is true that Dee’s project was grounded in the assumption that human beings could be directly inspired by God, a feature, certainly, of Reformation theology but also characteristic of the Christian mystical tradition predating Luther and Calvin. In Dee’s case, however, it becomes clear that finding the ultimate source of knowledge was the primary driver behind his experiments in religious experience. The desire for union with God was a secondary aim, a means to an end. What is particular to Dee is the way in which he turned (or, rather, tried to turn) the idea of the indwelling God into the central feature of a unified theory of knowledge including theology, natural science, and linguistics and then attempted to introduce the results of his esoteric research into the volatile political environment that was late-sixteenth-century Europe. Furthermore, his attempts to translate this ambitious undertaking into patronage complicated an already convoluted project. In Dee’s spiritual improvisations all of these factors combined in making mystics, an already subjective and unstable phenomenon, even more unstable. His project ultimately failed: as prophecy, as metalanguage, as revelation, as grab for patronage, and as encounter with the divine. It failed, primarily, because Dee fell prey to inflation, a kind of spiritual megalomania, and became enamored of the supposed success for which the Actions gave him evidence.
Though early modern Christians believed supernatural communication was possible, contemporary skepticism has all but silenced speculation on the topic, even in the scholarly excavation of the period. I find myself in agreement with Andrew Sofer, who has argued for a suspension of “new historicist skepticism in favor of historical phenomenology” when it comes to the question of whether or not such events may have been “real.”14 Much can also be said for Kristen Poole’s observation that, in reports of early modern supernatural phenomena, “the distinction between the psychological and the physical, or between the physical and the spiritual, or between the metaphorical and the literal ceases to hold.”15 It is best, I think, that we accept the phenomena of the Actions as they are, to return “to the things themselves,” as Husserl would say,16 in order to gain new insights into material that has been too easily dismissed from the serious consideration of early modern scholarship, particularly in terms of religion. As Ken Jackson and Arthur Marotti have argued, “We should not take a smugly rational stance in approaching the religious culture(s) of an earlier era … but rather respond deeply to the interplay of defamiliarizing experiences and familiar knowledge.”17 Dee’s religious thought provides fertile ground for responding to such an interplay.
In this chapter, I will read Dee’s project in terms of what Jean-Luc Marion has called “the idol.” Marion describes the idol as an image or idea that “acts as a mirror, not as a portrait: a mirror that reflects the gaze’s image, or more exactly, the image of its aim and the scope of that aim.”18 For Marion, the success of the idol-as-mirror lies in the fact that “the idol itself remains an invisible mirror.” Unlike the icon, which opens the beholder to the divine horizon, the idol fixes the gaze and returns to the viewer his or her own desires, and, ultimately, “consigns the divine to the measure of a human gaze.”19 Dee’s desires pre-mediated the success of the Actions, so that, ultimately, his spiritual project discloses a simulacrum of mystics, a mysticism of idols.

Dee as Religious Thinker

Dee’s very impressive library of over 4,000 print and manuscript volumes, in addition to a vast array of natural scientific works,20 was rich in mystical and occult texts.21 Raymond Lull and Paracelsus, for example, two writers who, like Dee, inhabit the fluid space shared by religion, natural science, and magic are the most represented authors in his collection.22 Dee seems to have had only a passing interest in medieval theology, but a serious one in medieval mysticism. He filled his copy of Dionysius the Areopagite’s Opera,23 for instance, with marginalia.24 But, surprisingly for a scholar so interested in solving his age’s religious problems, only a smattering of doctrinal or theological treatises of a Reformation or Counter-Reformation tenor can be found in his ...

Indice dei contenuti

  1. Cover Page
  2. Dedication
  3. Title Page
  4. Copyright Page
  5. Contents
  6. List of Figures
  7. Acknowledgements
  8. Introduction: Toward a Criticism of Contemplation
  9. 1 John Dee: Religious Experience and the Technology of Idolatry
  10. 2 A Glass Darkly: John Donne’s Negative Approach to God
  11. 3 Love’s Alchemist: Palingenesis and the Unconscious Metalepsis of Sir Kenelm Digby
  12. 4 The Rosicrucian Mysticism of Henry and Thomas Vaughan
  13. 5 The Pauline Mission of Jane Lead
  14. Conclusion: The Real Dialectic
  15. Bibliography
  16. Index
Stili delle citazioni per Literature and the Encounter with God in Post-Reformation England

APA 6 Citation

Martin, M. (2016). Literature and the Encounter with God in Post-Reformation England (1st ed.). Taylor and Francis. Retrieved from (Original work published 2016)

Chicago Citation

Martin, Michael. (2016) 2016. Literature and the Encounter with God in Post-Reformation England. 1st ed. Taylor and Francis.

Harvard Citation

Martin, M. (2016) Literature and the Encounter with God in Post-Reformation England. 1st edn. Taylor and Francis. Available at: (Accessed: 14 October 2022).

MLA 7 Citation

Martin, Michael. Literature and the Encounter with God in Post-Reformation England. 1st ed. Taylor and Francis, 2016. Web. 14 Oct. 2022.